When Jay was 10 years old, he got a baseball glove for Christmas. It had just stopped snowing the day before leaving a thick layer Christmas morning and the warmth of the small house was an absolute blessing. The glove was his big present for the year. On a rare occasion, the whole family had come home for the holidays. And nine kids ranging from ages 7 to 27 were gathered around the small living room with their parents and the moment was so special in itself that nothing else was needed to make the day perfect for Jay. But still he got the perfect present. The very thing he’d wanted for months now: to play with his friends down the road and eventually join the school team when he was tall enough and fast enough. But he couldn’t very well start practicing without a glove and his older brother Steven’s was so worn, it was literally coming apart at the seams. And that was why this present was so perfect. Once the rest of his family finished opening their presents and lunch was all done, Jay and his younger brother Kevin took their new gloves outside and started breaking them in. Soon enough their older brothers and sisters were joining in to play various games of catch and tag as a family. Looking back, Jay still swears that when he turned to look at his mom and dad on the porch, their eyes were beaming as bright as stars themselves. The nine of them played and played into the crisp winter night until there was no light left from the sun.
Jay looked back on that day fondly, even 5 years later when he and Kevin were on the official West Flint High School baseball team. It was his salvation, baseball. When they didn’t do too well on the farm that year and Mom was worrying sick, Dad stretching himself so thin day and night, to fix the unfixable, they still had the team. They still had each other. And they still had the game. Jay put everything he had into being the best. Working after practice, on the weekends, after work and chores on the farm, any free moment he had. And during the summer the team met at the field down the road for their extra practices. There wasn’t much light after dark but they did what they could with what they had.
The thing about this field down the road was that “down the road” really meant miles and miles away. Most of the land surrounding Jay’s house was his family’s farmland. And next to that was another family’s farmland and another and so on. The field was more close to the school than anything, but the bus doesn’t take kids home late at night. This, of course, presented a problem.
One especially long and exhausting day, Jay and Kevin got so caught up in practicing batting in right field that they completely lost track of time. And they forgot about dinner. They always had dinner at 8 o’clock on the dot. Not 1 minute later. This was a rule that had not only been strictly enforced with the 7 older kids in the family, but one that was not to be disobeyed for fear of their father’s wrath and their mother’s worrying. When Jay checked his watch it was 9:05. They were, for lack of a better term, screwed. They booked it home through their aching muscles and exhaustion and they made it home a whole hour and a half later. And yet the lights in the main room were off. Jay thought maybe they had gotten away with it. Or at least wouldn’t have to deal with it until the next morning. But some little part of him in the back of his mind whispered to him that it was too good to be true and he knew better then to assume his parents had gone to sleep. So he wasn’t all that surprised when the door was unlocked and there was their dad, wide awake in the dark living room in his worn green cotton chair, arms crossed and eyes blazing. Kevin and Jay stood completely still in the doorway, unable to move an inch. Not because of their aching muscles but from utterly petrifying fear. They stood there for what felt to Jay like hours or maybe even days. Finally when it felt almost unbearable, Kevin opened his mouth to say some sort of apology or excuse that would in no way make it better, Jay knew. But before Kevin could try, their father spoke with lethal quiet,
“Dad, I-” Jay started but didn’t get the chance before his dad continued.
“You’re really late. Your mother’s been so worried and you have work tomorrow morning before the sun comes up. No one in this house has time for you both to be going missin’ all the time. We have dinner at a specific time for a reason.” His voice was rising with every word until the cool calm had turned into shouting.
“Dad, I’m sorry. Joey and Tommy were out later than usual helping keep the lights on and Fiona was there to watch and it’s the summer and we just lost track of time and when we realized, we sprinted home as fast as possible,” Jay rambled.
“I don’t care for any of your excuses, boy. I don’t have time for ‘em. The rules in this house ain’t rocket science and there ain’t that many, but they’re set for a reason. So your mom doesn’t worry herself sick and we can all get a good meal in our systems and some good night sleep before a hard day’s work tomorrow.”
“We promise we’ll be up bright and early doin’ the same good work tomorrow, dad,” Kevin promised.
“Oh, I know you will because I will not tolerate any less. Just like I won’t tolerate this kind of late night again. You hear me?”
“Yessir,” they nodded at the same time. Their father wasn’t an overly strict man and he was a good dad. He raised all his kids to work hard and to be kind people, Jay knew. He was just stressed and overworked and constantly worrying about their family. Of course, he cared about his kids and their passions but he had to care about getting food in their mouths first.
He was actually the one who encouraged Jay into baseball in the first place, because he himself loved it in high school. Whenever he could he’d play catch with Jay and Kevin when they were young. It was only the practical rules he enforced with that lethal quiet he was using then. He left them to muster up the courage to take the steps down the hall to their room. And once the door was shut they could hear their parents fighting in that hushed arguing tone they used on rare nights. But Jay and Kevin could still hear their muffled voices because the walls were too thin. Their mother was mad at their father for yelling at them, and in return their dad was mad at her for defending them when she knew Jay and Kevin messed up.
“They know the rules and they broke them. I should think that’s perfect grounds for yelling.”
“Come on, they’re kids. Talented ones at that. But they just want to have fun right now and you know how cruel the world is out there, better than anyone. Let them have this time now to be boys and make mistakes and just have fun. It’s just one dinner.”
“It’s not just dinner and you know that. We’ve had these rules for 6 kids now, and I’ll be damned if I let these last two run wild. Things aren’t about to go and change now, after all these years.”
“Do you remember playing when you were their age? You loved it. It was your escape, your safe haven.”
“Well they can have their safe haven as long as they’re not late for dinner. That’s the rule.”
“They’re late because the park’s so far away. They don’t have a place to play ball around here.” There was a long contemplative pause. And the rest of the conversation turned to muffled quiet. But Jay couldn’t spare another moment of night to try and listen with field work in the morning. So he drifted off to sleep and awoke to a loud squawk.
When the morning rooster crowed and Jay practically fell out of his bunk, they made their way swiftly out to the field to begin shucking corn and planting soybeans for their next harvest. Kevin usually brought his radio out while they worked but there was no music that day. Not when they hadn’t spoken to their dad, who was gone when they woke up, leaving in his wake that physical tension in the air when you know you’re in trouble but don’t know what comes next. They worked fast and without pause all morning and when the afternoon dawned their mom called them to the porch for lunch. Eva, their older sister, gave them a weary look, the only indication that she heard the fight last night. Jay knew she wouldn’t bring it up unless they needed to talk about it, such was Eva. Always playing the mediator of the family. In that moment, Jay wished they got to see her more often but she was always either helping Mom and Dad with the vegetable stand or with her many different boyfriends.
They were just starting on their sandwiches when their dad pulled up the drive with his truck. He looked solem when he got out of the car, Jay thought. But there was also this flicker of determination in his walk that puzzled Jay further. Wasn’t he still mad? Their father is not the type to forgive and forget and certainly not look…almost excited? He marched straight to them and asked plainly,
“Do you really love baseball?” He was asking Jay.
“Uh–yeah. Yes. I love it. I’m so sorry about last night, Dad. We just got carried away, lost track of time.”
“I know, I know,” he said waving a dismissive hand, like it wasn’t anything at all. The three of them must have looked aghast because he turned to address them all: “But is baseball important to y’all?”
“Yessir, being a part of something, on the team, is something really special. Especially in this small town,” their father looked satisfied but Jay continued. “We’re getting good, too. Maybe not college scholarship good but it’s competitive and fun and we work well together.”
“Plus the chicks love it!” Kevin added with a smirk, followed by a whack on the head from Eva.
“What are you, fifteen? What do you know about chicks?”
When Jay turned back to face his dad, he was gone.
The next morning Jay woke up to a new sound. Not the rooster or their mother yelling at them, but the sound of a brush mower. Jay walked outside in his pajamas to meet his mother on the porch watching his father with a smile. Watching his father, Jay realized, chopping down the crops in the left field.
“What the hell is he doing?” Jay asked, bewildered.
“He’s clearing the field. It seems that’s the last harvest we’ll have in that field for a while,” she returned, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“But why? Wait what?” not understanding why they would ruin a perfectly good crop.
“Isn’t it obvious, dummy? We’re gonna build a baseball field.”
She turned to look at Jay. “You guys stay out too late. The baseball field at the park is a soccer field. And it sucks. The walk is like an hour away, and most of your friends live closer to us.” She raised her hands to present the future baseball field as if she could already see it, “…solution. Besides, I miss a full house. It’ll be nice to see a full team of boys out there.”
“Or girls!” Eva chimed in, now leaning against the doorframe.
“Or girls,” their mom replied.
“Bu-But…,” Jay tried but at a loss for words. “But what about the cost. This will be a whole expensive project. And we need that crop.”
“Yes, all good things to consider, and it’ll be a big project that will require plenty of hands, but we can make a …homemade field. Your daddy crunched the numbers and it won’t cost us too much to build. As for the crop, we’ll manage. Especially with the extra hours cut from yalls walking home.” Jay, although ecstatic, couldn’t help feeling worried for his family. This was more than he could ever imagine but at what cost? It was just a game after all. And this was his family they were talking about. He figured his thoughts were written all over his face because his mom took his hand and said,
“Family always finds a way, JJ.”
They sat there watching his dad for a while more and then when Kevin finally woke up, the whole conversation was repeated.
And then they went to work.
The whole neighborhood came over to see what the commotion was all about and once they heard the plan, there were all hands on deck. After a week, they cleared and flattened the field. Jay’s mom worked on sewing old seed bags to cardboard for makeshift plates and his dad bought some chalk, wooden planks, and chicken coop netting from the hardware store and got to work building the backstop and lining the field. But even while they built, they played.
One afternoon, a few of Jay’s friends came over to help bring in some benches for the pits and to throw the ball around.
“You’re really gonna sit there and tell me you think Kelly’s hotter then Farrah Fawcett?”, Tommy asked Kevin.
“I mean it’s Kate Jackson man.”
“Ok, you’re so wrong. Jay, back me up here.”
“Sorry Kev, I’m with Tommy. Kate Jackson’s forehead’s way too big.”
“You guys are seriously pigs,” Eva called out, hauling the cooler over to the pit.
“Yeah, quit your talkin’ and come help us with lunch. I raise gentlemen in my household,” their mom yelled from the porch.
“Yeah, we’re respectable men here…” but when their mom turned he winked and whispered, “Farrah Fawcett.”
“Oh gross,” their mom wacked him in the head. “Jerry, you’re too old for that.” And they were all crying, laughing so hard.
They spent the rest of the day playing various games of ball tag and mini baseball but they ended the day playing their all time favorite.
“Ok, if you can get the ball in the heart of the cornfield then we win,” Tommy said to Kevin. They were in teams of two: Tommy and Kevin, their dad and Jay, and their mom and Eva. Kevin was next to bat and Jay threw him a curveball. Despite Jay’s best efforts, Kevin still made contact and used all the power in his skinny legs, hitting the ball straight ahead all the way past the markings of the end of the field and into the corn. And then he was running to first while Jay and Eva were sprinting as fast as they could through to the cornfield, each trying to get to the ball before the other. Jay got to the edge of the field and began combing through the thick stalks of corn almost ready for harvest. He waded and waded and he could hear Eva’s ragged breath close behind. But there, by the corner of his eye, he saw the little ball. He grabbed it and ran. One step in front of the other until he made it to the clearing. But right as he stepped out of the cornfield, he got splashed. A cool, sweet smelling red suddenly soaked his clothes and his hair and he doubled back a step before he could comprehend what had happened. He looked up to find Kevin and his dad falling over laughing so hard, each holding one end of the cooler rimmed with red. The faint pungently sweet smell of Kool-aid everywhere. He had no thoughts in his mind, only a pure rage.
He shook off the Kool-aid like a wet dog, a burning fire in his eyes, and marched past his dad and brother still on the ground laughing. He walked and walked till he got to home plate, picked up the bat, and took his stance.
“You’re gonna regret that,” is all he said as Tommy went up to the mound. He pitched, Jay swung, and the only thing in the world was the crack of metal as the ball and bat collided.
She hears the bat crack and she knows he has to start running. He looks only once to see if the short is far enough from second to get two bases on him. He’s deep in left field, he can do it, she thinks. No one else in the crowd seems as enthusiastic. He runs and runs as fast as his legs will take him. He curves through first and keeps going. He goes and goes and looks up again to see where the short is now running fast to catch him before he hits second. He’s close enough that he makes the position to slide. He slows just a little. The short’s only four strides away. He launches into his slide as the short reaches his glove down to tap him out. But he’s already on the bag.
“Woww,” her dad cheers. “That hit was only in left field, that was amazing!”
“And he went all the way to 2nd, even though the shortstop was so close,” Addie said with all the pride in the world for her favorite team, the Red Socks.
“You know, when I was your age we didn’t get to go to games like this. You are really lucky, young lady.”
“Dad, I think you’re the lucky one to have a daughter this cool.”
“Ok hot shot. You say that now, but just wait. One day when you’re out there on a big softball field, your team might chase you around the field with a tub of Kool-Aid. See how cool you are then.”
“Nevermind,” he says, as he smiles and recalls that little boy at Christmas with the brand new baseball glove.